Stephen Colbert returns to Washington on Thursday to stir up trouble, this time at the Federal Election Commission.
The satirical pundit of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” is scheduled to appear at an open meeting of the FEC to answer questions about his super PAC, a tongue-in-cheek political action committee dedicated to himself.
The visit puts the FEC in the position of trying not to be the butt of Colbert’s jokes.
Former FEC Chairman David Mason cautioned that commissioners could find themselves in a tough position when dealing with Colbert.
“If they just play it straight, then they become the straight men for his jokes and are portrayed as witless, clueless bureaucrats,” said Mason, who helps campaigns, PACs and parties stay in compliance as a vice president at Aristotle Inc. “And if they try to trade jokes with him, it’s like mud wrestling with a pig. You get dirty, and he doesn’t mind.”
Colbert walks the line between political relevance and comedic absurdity, but there is usually a serious argument beneath the antics. In this case, he’s drawing attention to recent court rulings allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering.
So far, the FEC has played it pretty straight with Colbert. For example, the comedian is seeking an advisory opinion regarding his television show’s parent company, and the FEC has released three draft opinions totaling 51 pages, including a new draft on Tuesday.
“Certainly the commission is treating this as seriously as it treats any other advisory opinion request,” FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said.
The problem is accommodating the loyal fans who make up the Colbert Nation.
“It’s really a crowd-control issue,” Ingram said. “We are anticipating, based on his last visit, that there could be more demand for seating than usual.”
The FEC normally provides seating for about 70 people at its meetings, but more than 200 crowded the streets in front of the FEC when Colbert dropped off his advisory opinion request in May, even though there was little advance notice.
Ingram pointed out that the FEC’s website streams live audio of its meetings. C-SPAN has not confirmed whether it intends to cover the event, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
Although the FEC is taking Colbert seriously, campaign finance watchdogs are not amused by Colbert’s political antics.
“Mr. Colbert makes it clear that he is in the entertainment business,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “But it happens to involve very serious campaign issues, and some of the draft advisory opinions would open up gaping holes in the campaign finance laws.”
Campaign finance experts expect the commissioners to approve the Colbert PAC on Thursday and to allow it to raise and spend unlimited money as a super PAC.
Colbert has pulled more than a few political stunts in Washington:
Colbert PAC: At the end of March, Colbert announced he was starting his own PAC with help from his lawyer, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter. Two weeks later, Colbert lampooned the process by pointing out that the only difference between creating a PAC and a super PAC is a one-page cover letter.
But lawyers from Viacom Inc., Comedy Central’s parent company, were still worried that there could be legal implications from spending company resources on the PAC. So Colbert and Potter submitted an advisory opinion request to the FEC asking for a media exemption that the agency is slated to debate Thursday. In the meantime, Colbert said that the No. 1 objective of the Colbert super PAC “is to get raises for every member of the FEC.”
These embarrassing Capitol Hill interviews became such an issue that then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel instructed Democratic freshmen in 2007 not to appear on Colbert’s “435-part series.” So far, more than 70 House lawmakers and candidates have been interviewed for the show. They include former Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) posing as his own “evil twin” to tell Colbert why he “enjoys cocaine” and “the company of prostitutes.”
White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner: No one was safe from Colbert’s snark when he headlined the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. President George W. Bush looked uncomfortable as Colbert roasted him in particularly biting fashion at the annual event. “It is my privilege to celebrate this president, because we’re not so different, he and I,” Colbert said. “We both get it. Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the fact-inista. We go straight from the gut.”
Testifying Before Congress: At the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Colbert testified in character before a House Judiciary subcommittee in September 2010 about his “vast experience spending one day as a migrant farm worker.” During his five-minute monologue, he blended serious agricultural concerns with humor. “This is America,” he said. “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”
Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: In a move toward the moderate, Colbert’s Comedy Central colleague, Jon Stewart, announced that he would host the Rally to Restore Sanity to ask America to “take it down a notch” from the extremist rhetoric in the mainstream media. Not to be outdone, Colbert countered with the March to Keep Fear Alive. The combined rallies drew a reported 215,000 people to the National Mall on Oct. 30, 2010, and featured guest stars including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ozzy Osbourne.
While Stewart opted for some sincerity, Colbert went for the bizarre, dressing in American flag garb and creating a “Fearzilla” puppet. “I am simply raising awareness of potential dangers and then allowing an informed public to decide whether to cower in terror or to die bravely,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.